On the eastern bank of the mighty Irrawaddy River in central Burma lies the Bagan plain, an area of around sixteen square miles, and home to the world’s most extraordinary collection of temples. Bagan is a must see. Feast your eyes on 2000 Buddhist temples and pagodas, stupas and shrines within an area just 13 x 8 km. Mostly built in the 11th and 12th centuries by Bagan’s ruling elite and the wealthy, there were originally in excess of 10,000 religious structures here.
Marco Polo described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes”. The buildings were a way for the faithful of Burma’s thriving capital city to simultaneously make a votive offering, to acquire spiritual merit, to make reparation, to give thanks, to take a step forward on the journey to enlightenment, to come into the presence of the next Buddha…
The Bagan temples were constructed from wood or stone – the wooden structures have long since perished and many of the stone buildings now lie in ruins. However, those that are intact show the development of Burmese temple design. The shape of each building – each element of their architecture – have a significance and spiritual meaning in Buddhism. There are two basic types: the stupa-style solid temple; and the gu-style hollow temple.
Bagan’s stupas or pagodas developed earlier Pyu designs, elongating the hemispherical body to a longer cylindrical form and then to a bell-shaped form. The stupa represents the Buddhist cosmos, its shape symbolising the sacred Mount Meru. Earlier Pyu designs had a shaft on top of the stupa supporting several ceremonial umbrellas representing the world’s axis. Bagan’s stupas replaced the umbrellas with a series of increasingly smaller rings stacked on top of each other, rising to a point topped by a lotus bud and later a banana-shaped bud. The stupas often housed a relic chamber or were simply considered a commemorative structure.
Bagan’s gus or hollow temples developed from mostly one-faced designs to four-faced structures. A single niche, perhaps housing an icon viewable from the outside, grew in complexity to an opening or entrance which eventually led to structures with four openings – one to each of the cardinal points, North, South, East and West. There were some more elaborate variations on this design, and pointed arches and vaulted inner chambers were featured. The hollow temples were used for meditation or devotional worship of the Buddha.